Economic inequality is one of the greatest challenges we face as a nation. Unions can help solve this problem because they are a way for workers to use their collective power to even the playing field against employers; when unions become weak, as we’ve seen, workers’ wages decline, benefits are scaled back or eliminated, and worker safety is compromised in order to make companies more profitable.
One of the reasons unions have struggled in the last 50 years is that an increasingly conservative Supreme Court has ruled against them. Most recently the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (in Janus v. AFSCME) that employees in the public sector can get higher wages and benefits union negotiations secure without having to pay the union for its work, which weakens the need for workers to join. This creates a “free rider” problem that is common in “right to work” (RTW) states, where no workers can be compelled to join a union, even though the unions are required to represent them.
Conservatives argue that workers should get to choose whether or not they join a union. That seems reasonable. But making that argument either demonstrates a lack of understanding about how unions work, or is part of a conscious effort to weaken unions. Unions only work if the workers speak with one voice; the ultimate threat unions have is the strike, and any strike is undermined if enough workers don’t honor it. Additionally, workers do have a choice; the union is only established if a majority of workers vote for it, and workers elect the union leadership. So the choice is a democratic one they make as a group; but even in a democracy, your candidate (or issue) doesn’t always win.
In the Janus case, the court ruled 5-4 to prevent public sector unions from collecting “agency fees” (fees used for union work on employment issues, such as wages, not work on political issues) from employees not in the union; Justice Samuel Alito (writing the majority opinion) argued that forcing such payment infringed upon the employee’s right to free speech, because requiring such fees to the union was compelling their speech. This decision overturned the 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Public Education, under which the Supreme Court allowed unions to collect dues to pay for bargaining, but not for political purposes (that money was voluntary for nonmembers).
Labor critics often support the Janus decision for protecting workers against being compelled to support union political choices, but the Abood decision already did that. Janus goes much farther, with a distinction that rests on the difference between public and private sector unions. In his majority opinion, Alito argues that because unions seek higher wages and benefits that impose costs on the employer, and in this case, the employer is the state, any such demands are inherently political, because they will inevitably force higher taxes, and taxation is a political subject. So it is not the union taking a stand for or against a particular politician (or policy), it is the union doing its job of procuring benefits for its members that is the prohibited political speech. In other words, the Supreme Court is arguing that by forcing Janus to pay agency fees, the government is forcing him to pay for things that will lead to higher taxes, which is the same as forcing Janus to assert his support for increased taxes (a policy decision), which he opposes. That’s quite a stretch.
The appointment of the historically anti-labor Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court will make the majority of the court anti-labor, and further weaken unions. Unions, like corporations, have their flaws, but without them working people will continue to be at the mercy of the much more powerful business owners, who will continue to pay them as little as they can get away with, contributing to the growing divide that is splitting our country. The government and the courts need to correct this imbalance, to make the working class prosperous enough to help the economy grow, instead of desperate enough to have no choice.
One could make the argument that in the 1950s and ’60s, labor unions were too strong, and forced companies to make concessions they could not afford, which crippled American industry. And one can argue that public sector unions are inappropriate, because there is no market to check their demands for higher wages and more benefits. And both of those arguments, while flawed, have some truth in them. But it is even more clear that today unions are relatively weak, and inequality has risen because of it. While labor is not going down without a fight (labor recently defeated RTW legislation in Missouri, a very conservative state), the government needs to enact more labor-friendly policies to allow workers to become economically secure. Policies like “card check,” which allows workers to form a union once more than 50 percent of the workers have signed union cards, and eliminating RTW laws would strengthen unions. Elizabeth Warren recently proposed legislation that requires large corporations to have representatives of labor on their boards, giving labor a voice at the decision-making level, which would force companies to consider the impact their decisions have on labor (instead of simply considering labor to be a cost that needed to be minimized). This is done in Germany, and has helped German workers retain a comfortable lifestyle without hurting German productivity. Workers are a vital part of society, and we should treat them that way.
Kent James is an East Washington resident and has degrees in history and policy management from Carnegie Mellon University.